2018 iPad Pro: The review scene and bigger picture context

As I write this we’re about two weeks in since the new iPads were delivered and there are reviews everywhere and most of them say the same thing which I can sum up as “fast and powerful but limited by iOS and the lack of professional apps”. I’d like to offer a counter to those reviews and the half-baked argument they make to cover-up their own lack of effort and knowledge. But first just a few words, not about iOS or the professional app ecosystem, but about the new iPads.

By way of introduction let me say that I don’t use an iPad as my primary computer because it is the most powerful computer I own (though it is). I use the iPad because it enables me to do the work I need to do (as does the Mac) and because I find it the most delightful computer I’ve ever used. I have said this about the iPad Air as well as my previous iPad Pro and I’ll say it again about this new iPad. This is the best computer I’ve ever owned. As tech goes, the 2018 iPad Pro is a stunner in every way. By itself or attached to the Keyboard Folio with the Pencil, this is a beautifully designed computer that is so much fun to use.

I’ll discuss in order of impact as to how it feels in my use. I’ll start with the Keyboard Folio because I use the iPad attached to a keyboard at least 60% of the time.

The new folio is a much more stable experience than the previous Smart Keyboard. With the Smart Keyboard there was always the feeling and the chance that it could tip or flop backward or, more likely, forward. Even so I used it all the time because I appreciated the proximity of my hands to the screen. Also, I really liked the feel if the keys.

The new Smart Folio Keyboard is so much better because while the keys are the same, the solid base and new magnetic back attachment means the iPad is now very stable even in the lap. I feel completely safe using it knowing that it will not flip or flop. In fact, it feels as stable as a traditional laptop. With this design the only thing I feel I’m missing is the back-light and top row of media control keys. And those are big misses to be sure, but even so the experience is still excellent. I really like the sound and feel of this keyboard, more than any other keyboard I can remember using. It’s a personal preference and some might dislike it.

Another aspect of the new keyboard is the much easier set-up and the new available angle. I can go from closed to typing with less effort. For the tablet experience I can remove the case all together with little effort or fold the keyboard all the way back. Both are very nice. With the keyboard folded back it has a nice grippy feel as the magnet is strong enough to hold it solidly in place but with a flick of my fingers I can easily drop it down for use in the keyboard position.

A last note about the keyboard is just how satisfying the feel of the magnets are. Closing it up results in a subtle but nice click which can be felt and heard. Seating the iPad in either of the two slots also has a satisfying feel and click which affirms the sturdiness of the new configuration.

Then there is the tablet itself. If I had to summarize the difference between the new design of the 2018 iPad Pro compared to the previous it is this: the 2018 feels solid and compact while at the same time lighter and thinner. As much as I enjoyed using the 2017 iPad Pro as a tablet, hand-held with no case, this one is even better in the hand. It feels very solid and yet impossibly thin given its other dimensions. Of course it’s very fast but so was the 2017 version. Even my iPad Air 2 is still fast with apps appearing nearly instantly.

Face Id is better on the iPad than the iPhone though it is excellent on both. The only failures I’ve had have been the result of covering the camera while holding it as a tablet. In those cases correction is quick and easy. When attached to the keyboard I simply tap the space bar twice and I’m good to go with no delay.

The Pencil is so much more convenient! The new combined inductive charging and magnetic storage method is vastly better than the previous. And, like the case, the magnetic connection provides a satisfying click as the Pencil is securely pulled into its place.

The last feature that is not at all new to the iPad but which I really rely on is LTE. My first two iPads had cellular but I then skipped it with the following two purchases. My reasoning was that between tethering and my home internet I would not need built in cellular. In practice my satellite internet is too slow. Tethering to the iPhone is faster but often fails the first few attempts to connect and too often my iPad would sleep and loose it’s connection or I might walk away with the phone and have to reconnect upon returning. In other words, it feels fiddly. Having the always on LTE is so much better. The iPad antennas provide a signal that is equal to or better than the phone and so my connection is always strong. Going forward any new iPad I purchase will have cellular because the experience is just too good to pass up.

Lastly, let’s talk about iOS and the app ecosystem. With iOS 9 I began the shift to iPad as my preferred computer. This was solidified further with the release of the multitasking features in iOS 11 and improved with iOS 12. Much has been made in recent weeks about the missing features of iOS. I won’t argue against facts. It’s true that iOS does not support mice or trackpads or accessing files stored on attached hard drives. It’s true that it’s missing certain Apple pro apps such as Logic or Final Cut Pro. As of this writing these things are true.

That said, the echo chamber of tech reviewers is stale and, even worse, misleading. It seems to me that many of these reviewers have not used iPads enough to know what is possible with iOS or the app ecosystem. Or, if they do, they are deliberately leaving out important information which counters their preferred narrative.

For example, yes, it’s true that I cannot plug in a usb drive and access files unless they are media files recognized by the Photos app, namely videos and images. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that most reviewers mentioning the lack of file access on hard drives also consider themselves power users. That’s certainly what they imply or state. In this picture of professionals working in an office setting, it’s to be expected that they have access to a network and nearby computers. Using an app such as FileBrowser or Documents they can easily access their files in such an office setting. I myself have a MacMini that I use as a media/file server and it’s not uncommon for me to need access to older project files. In just a few seconds and a couple taps I have access to all of the files on my Mac or any hard drives attached to the Mac. I can open files from the Mac, copy them to my iPad’s local storage or save/export any of my local files back to the Mac.

If tech reviewers are going to position themselves as advanced power users, shouldn’t they be more aware of the many apps available which allow for access to any local file attached to a nearby networked computer? A part of being a professional user is being aware of the available tools, in this case, apps. But many “professional” reviewers seem to be largely unaware of what’s available on the App Store. That’s their shortcoming not the iPad’s. Take for example the many reviewers who mentioned the lack of Final Cut Pro. Are they unaware of LumaFusion? Apparently so. It’s #2 in the Photo & Video category with almost 5,000 ratings and an average of 4.8 stars.

Apple cannot and will not provide all of the needed software for their devices. That’s why third party app developers exist. From the well known giants such as Microsoft or Adobe to fantastic (though sometimes less known) developers such as Serif (the makers of the Affinity suite of apps, one of which is #1 in the Photo & Video category), Readdle, Omni, just to name a few. If reviewers are going to ding the platform because it is missing essential professional apps or app types then they should know that those apps are indeed missing. It is my contention that they would rather have something to complain about because that’s the in-thing to do with Apple these days. It get’s clicks. Meanwhile, the people who are actually using iPads know about these apps and use them every day.

I’ll round this out with what might seem an odd comparison. In recent years Apple has become quite large as a company (both in financial resources and employee base) and as they have increased in size so too have expectations that they are all powerful. At the same time many of their products are offered at higher prices. iPhones at $1,500!? iPads for $1,800?!? Outrageous. And so now there is the narrative of the “Apple premium”. One result is that reviewers feel they can and should hold Apple to a higher standard. I get that. But at the same time the reviewers themselves should be held to a higher standard. Critique is fine but it should be fully informed and thoughtful. Mostly I see cheap repetition in reviews.

Apple does charge a premium. But you know what else Apple does that is not mentioned in the reviews? Apple has gone to extraordinary lengths to become an excellent environmental citizen. To my knowledge no other company has come even close to what Apple has achieved. This is worth something and it has to be paid for by everyone including consumers. Along the same lines, few reviewers mention the fact that Apple devices get new OS updates for many years, far longer than those in competing systems. So yes, if one purchases a top of the line device they can expect that it it will continue to receive updates and function well for 4 to 5 years or more. These are not throw away devices to be tossed aside after two years.

While I don’t use it often I still have a 2012 MacMini that stays on 24/7 as a file and media server. I occasionally use it for InDesign projects as well. It still has plenty of power and runs the latest macOS. I will be able to use my iPhone X for at least another 3-4 years if I choose to do so. The 2018 iPad should serve me well for at least 3 to 5 years. I’m still using an iPad Air 2 introduced in 2014. It’s 4 years old and I expect I’ll get another two years, possibly more from it. While I greatly prefer the larger screen of the iPad Pro the Air 2 could be my only iPad because it still functions very well. Apps open up nearly instantly and rarely do I see a slow-down when I’m using it.

Rarely do reviewers mention the longevity of Apple devices and this is an oversight. Their reviews are incomplete without this bigger picture.

One last bit. In reviewing Apple products and the bigger picture, I’d suggest that reviewers should at least mention the value added by Today at Apple. This isn’t just a sales gimmick being offered up by Apple. It’s a real offering that requires real resources and it’s offered to Apple customers for free. If I lived near an Apple Store I know I’d take advantage of the program. Aside from this excellent post at MacStories I’ve barely seen mention of the program in any of the Apple Press and that’s a disservice to their readers.

One reply on “2018 iPad Pro: The review scene and bigger picture context”

  1. Thoughtful post. I decided to continue using my 12.9” iPad Pro after checking out the new iPads. They are certainly awesome! Being on a tight budget forces me to be frugal. Fortunately, I can continue working with what I have. I do prefer the feel of the new Pencil and appreciate how it attaches and the new keyboard is definitely more solid. I’ll get by without it for a bit.

    The iPad Pro is also my ‘main’ computer tho I have a lovely 27” iMac and MacBook Pro. Over the past year I’ve successfully explored ways to use the iPad more frequently. Recently, rather than launching Adobe Illustrator on the iMac I opened an .ai file with Affinity Designer on the iPad Pro. It worked perfectly (Vectornator did not open the file correctly so I deleted the app). I completed the job, saved as a .pdf and sent to the printer – success!

    I have trouble figuring out Affinity Photo. Fortunately, Pixelmator runs perfectly on iOS and their macOS app is beautiful too. It’s become a real Photoshop replacement. I’m excited about Pixelmator’s future iOS upgrade and will upgrade my iPad Pro based on whether the app requires more horsepower or the latest and greatest hardware. For now my needs are met.

    One surprise for me is how I’ve become accustomed to the virtual trackpad. Using the virtual or physical Bluetooth keyboard allows me two finger access to the virtual trackpad. I hope Apple goes all glass with a haptic keyboard and trackpad in the future.

    My two college teenagers will get new iPad Pros this year and enjoy the new cool gear (my older son is a medical student and only uses the 9.7” iPad Pro for the past three years to successfully maintain a 3.7 GPA). My ‘new’ wife will get a new MacBook Air as I continue converting her to Apple (the HomePod has become a staple in our home). But I will trudge along with the first generation iPad Pro as long as it continues to do everything I need – and indeed, so far, it has.

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